Webcast Recap

"As long as China does not fundamentally change its strategic view on the Korean Peninsula," observed Dr. Berhnard Seliger, resident representative of the Hanns Seidel Foundation's Seoul office, "a collapse propelled by the economy is unlikely." With only a minimum amount of income necessary to sustain the North Korean regime, talk of its demise is premature. Seliger argued during a discussion on European perspectives on the current economic conditions in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) hosted by the Wilson Center's North Korea International Documentation Project in cooperation with the Asia Program and European Studies.

"While political investment from China can considerably prolong the life of the North Korean regime," Seliger suggested, "it can not transform the North Korean economy to make it self-sufficient." "What North Korea really wants is recovery without reform," Seliger observed. "This is the main goal of the Chollima Movement," a mid-20th century campaign to mobilize indigenous human and material resources that was officially re-launched in 2009. However, without reform, he argued, North Korea will not likely be able to attract investment from other countries, other than small projects or those in the raw materials sector.

Seliger, a long-time observer of North Korea, oversaw an European Union (EU) capacity building program designed to bring basic knowledge on trade to North Korean managers, economic administrators and academics. The EU-DPRK Trade Capacity Project, which ran from 2006 to 2009, was relatively successful in making North Korean planners understand that trade is possible without regime change. It also taught them that in order to establish trade relations and make use of comparative advantages, they had to meet certain criteria, adhere to regulations, and develop their communication systems and infrastructure. When the project began, by contrast, his North Korean interlocutors had many basic misconceptions about trade. "North Koreans thought you simply send your products abroad and then collect the proceeds." They were baffled by such things as industry standards and regulations in manufacturing, or by the fact that potential importers wanted to conduct inspections of production facilities to ensure consistency and compliance with specifications.

According to Seliger, the EU-DPRK Trade Capacity Project served as an "appetizer" for other programs. Its main strength lied in revealing the development gap between North Korea and the rest of the world. North Korea, Seliger stated, experiences a dire need of knowledge transfer and training in all fields.

Yet, cooperation with the North Korean elites has proven difficult to gain and sustain. It has remained fragile and dependent upon the "reach" of the suggested reforms. "It has become evident," Seliger explained, "that potentially far-reaching reforms may lead to a complete North Korean withdrawal" from capacity building projects.

"Trust-building is an essential component in dealing with North Korea" to demonstrate to the ruling elite that the outside world is not hostile to the DPRK. Yet, North Korean leaders categorically reject trust-building. Therefore establishing a working relationship remains difficult. The regime's hostility to trust-building is not an ideological problem, according to Seliger. Rather, as a matter of political expediency, the North Korean leadership attempts to maintain a degree of "conflict" with the rest of the world to ensure the survival of the regime. Openness and reform, from a North Korean perspective, lead to more interaction with the world, and consequently threaten the survival of the regime. This would not be the case, noted Seliger, if South Korea did not exist. Because of the draw of South Korea, a successful example of development and prosperity on the Korean peninsula, the North Korean leadership perceives interaction with the world as a threat.

In conclusion, Seliger refuted the suggestion that North Korea is a failed state on the verge of collapse. "In North Korea, everything works well as far as the survival of the regime is concerned." In terms of its economy, however, the country has encountered many difficulties. Overall, the combination of political and economic circumstances in North Korea makes it a very different kind of developing country, but in no way does it render it the status of a failed state.

Drafted by James F. Person
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program.